President Trump delivered his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, and it was a triumph.
The speech offered the clearest sign yet that the administration has parted with Steve Bannon and other Breitbart types who wanted to use Trump as a bulldozer against liberal order. At Turtle Bay, Trump recommitted Washington to the defense of a U.S.-led world order. He also called out forcefully the rogue states that seek “to collapse the values, the systems and alliances that prevented conflict and tilted the world toward freedom.”
Trump praised the founding of the U.N. and the Marshall Plan, based on the “noble idea that the whole world is safer when nations are strong, independent and free” and the “vision that diverse nations could cooperate to protect their sovereignty, preserve their security and promote their prosperity.” Robert Kagan couldn’t have said it better.
Turning to specific global security challenges, Trump similarly telegraphed a return to the GOP’s postwar foreign-policy traditions.
- On Iran: “We cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilizing activities [in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen] while building dangerous missiles. And we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program . . . Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever. The day will come when the people will face a choice: Will they continue down the path of poverty, bloodshed, and terror? Or will the Iranian people return to the nation’s proud roots as a center of civilization, culture, and wealth, where their people can be happy and prosperous?”
- On socialism in Venezuela and beyond: “The problem in Venezuela isn’t that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented. From the Soviet Union to Cuba, to Venezuela; wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure. Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.”
- On U.N. reform: “Too often, the focus of this organization has not been on results, but on bureaucracy and process. In some cases, states that seek to subvert this institution’s noble ends have hijacked the very systems that are supposed to advance them. For example, it is a massive source of embarrassment to the United Nations that some governments with egregious human rights records sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council.”
- On the threat from revanchist regimes in Moscow and Beijing: “We must reject threats to sovereignty, from the Ukraine to the South China Sea.”
And so on. This wasn’t the rhetoric of a pinched, narrow nationalism a la Marine Le Pen. She and other European illiberals loathe American leadership. They see it as American imperialism disguised as rules-based world order. For all their talk of sovereignty, they don’t want to see Washington confront Moscow’s bullying in Eastern Europe or Tehran’s in the Middle East. And Trump’s talk of upholding postwar “systems and alliances” can’t have gone down well at the Front National’s base in Nanterre—or at Breitbart HQ.
If your default vision of liberal order looks like Barack Obama- and Angela Merkel-style transnationalism, you were probably disappointed with Trump’s speech. The features of the Obama/Merkel model are endless diplomatic processes for their own sake; the expansion of transnational “norms” and institutions, usually at the expense of democratic self-government; and a general disdain for anything redolent of nationhood and nationalism and particularity. It has angered voters–think of Trump’s election and Brexit–and triggered a crisis of liberal-democratic legitimacy across much of the developed world.
There are other, more humble ways of conceiving international order. It can be liberal—that is, rules-based and tending toward liberty—without setting itself up against nationalism. The nation-state isn’t going away anytime soon and, indeed, “remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition,” as Trump noted.
Liberal order can acknowledge that the vast majority of the world’s people are religious believers. Therefore, the effort to force every nation to follow the Netherlands on gender and sexuality is both wrong and likely to invite a backlash. And it can recognize that evil is a root fact of the life of individuals and nations, and therefore sometimes diplomacy and multilateralism must give way to the sword.
This alternative vision of liberal order would have looked familiar to a Ronald Reagan or a Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Judging by his best foreign-policy speeches—in Riyadh, Warsaw, and now New York—it is also the vision the administration has adopted. Those of us who worried about Bannon’s themes should cheer, and give credit where it is due.